In time for the 60th anniversary celebrations of the EU on March 25, but also in reaction to the UK‘s Brexit vote, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on March 1, 2017 presented his promised White Paper on „The Future of Europe (sic!). Reflections and scenarios for the EU27 by 2025“. It is interesting to note that he talks of „Europe“, not the EU…
Juncker intends his paper not as a fully fledged strategy, but rather presents 5 options to the 27 heads of state to choose from at their forthcoming summit meeting. This self-imposed modesty by the Commission President may be triggered by his recognition that Commission initiatives have become less than popular among member states, or alternatively, that he sees himself as idea-giver and moderator, rather than decision maker, pulling the Commission back from a looming power struggle with the Council (and Parliament).
Juncker outlines some of the drivers of change affecting the EU: its falling share of world population (from 25% in 1900 to 6% in 2015), of global GDP (from 26% 2004 to 22% 2015), its falling share in world currencies in the IMF‘s basket (33% 2015, 30% in 2017); the increasing militarization which will lead to a doubling of defense expenditures in all countries by 2045; significant changes in society and economy (high but receding unemployment, excessive unemployment of young people in the EU)‚which have undermined populations‘ confidence in the political system to solve their problems; population ageing which will provide the EU with the highest median age (45 years) of all regions by 2030; digitalisation of economy and society; the challenge of climate change and environmental degradation, and finally, the grave security problems in neighboring regions, plus terrorism and ensuing waves of migration. All these, according to Juncker, undermine trust in the political systems and play into the hands of nationalist forces in all member states.
Juncker pleads to lead the debate away from the dichotomy „more or less Europe“. He proposes 5 possible scenarios, which are not always strictly separated from each other – and could be combined in various ways. His starting and end point is the assumption and desire that the remaining 27 countries will stay together for the foreseeable future.
Scenario 1: Carrying On
This does not imply to do nothing, but rather to continue those projects which are already in the EU pipeline, eg. to complete the Single Market, to continue investments into infrastructure and thus create growth and jobs. Gradual improvements in the implementation of the Euro, joint foreign policy, fighting terrorism, showing unity in global negotiations, and co-determine the global agenda towards sustainability, financial stability and fighting climate change.
Scenario 2: Nothing But the Single Market
Since it seems unlikely that with respect to migration, Security and Defense a joint strategy can be implemented, concentrating on completing the Single Market might be called for. This might also require bilateral agreements for new challenges. While this is a possible scenario, it might include a regulatory and tax race to the bottom, might increase imbalances in the Eurozone and thus weaken the Euro (further) and would make joint EU positions in international negotiations impossible, thus diminishing the EU‘s leverage in such negotiations.
Scenario 3: Those Who Want More Do More
This would be the old „Europe of Different Speeds“. The EU would accept that sector by sector those countries which desire joint action and more integration can do that, while others remain outside. Schengen and Euro, the close-to-aborted financial transactions tax, are examples. This could refer to tax harmonization, to social standards, to external and internal security cooperation. Such a scenario (which seems to be preferred by Juncker, but also Merkel and others) would greatly lower transparency and accountability, and might lead to fowned-upon raisin picking by some countries. On the other hand, it would lift the blockades which unanimity requirements in e.g. tax matters have exerted for decades. It might also reduce the leverage of countries to blackmail others by threatening to leave the EU.
Scenario 4: Doing Less More Efficiently
EU would withdraw from many less important areas, but concentrate on those which require EU solutions. This would answer to widespread criticisms in many countries that the EU invades the privacy of citizens, regulates minute areas which would be better left to national governments. This „mission creep“ has also overwhelmed EU resources (both manpower and finances) and left too little room to regulate regional matters. The crux of the matter, however, is which priority areas to choose, where large differences abound. Juncker proposes innovation, trade, security migration and border management as priorities. He argues that such focussing would reduce the widening gaps between promises, expectations and implementations which have weakened the EU support by citizens. A better and clearer delineation of which level (EU, regional, national governments) regulates what might become possible.
Scenario 5: Doing Much More Together
More integration and EU competency in all areas. The Eurozone would be the core group whose decisions would also benefit all other members. In global negotiations the EU would be represented by one powerful voice and thus be able to pull its full (economic) weight also politically. Faster and better EU decisions would follow.
Juncker expects that by the time of his „State of the Union“ address in the fall of 2017, heads of state will have had full discussions, in a way that he can announce a direction. In the meantime, the Commission will produce more detailed discussion papers for the social dimension, the deepening of the monetary union, regulation of globalisation, the future of European defense and the future of EU financing (not least important because of the end of UK‘s net contribution to the EU budget).
It is important that Juncker at this point in time attempts to steer the discussion, when many call the future of the EU doubtful. It is also important that in spite of listing some of the future challenges, Juncker‘s paper is basically optimistic. The chosen scenarios are relatively superficial and lack detail, but may start a more structured discussion (The „mini-summit“ by Merkel, Hollande, Rajoy and Gentiloni on March 6 may give some direction, even if the banding together of the large member states will rightly make the smaller ones queasy; the outright refusal of the Visegrad countries to contemplate a Europe at different speeds is ominous).
A number of criticisms are in order: 1) the dichotomy implied by scenario 4 implies a zero-sum game of the distribution of competencies between the EU level and member states. There is a valid argument, however, that the policy space of member countries can be enhanced by joint EU solutions in a number of areas; in this sense, „more“ EU in some areas (e.g. coordinated economic policy) would give more policy leeway to individual countries, since it would avoid „beggar-thy-neighbor“ activities and „leakages“ of policy effects to other countries.
2) Juncker‘s scenarios know only the EU level and member states‘ authorities as political actors; civil society and social partners play no role. It would be extremely important for closing the perceived and real „democeracy deficit“ of the EU by integrating the populations in the decision-preparation and decision-making processes of a future EU. Unless citizens are brought into the political processes in a structured way, none of the scenarios will „fly“.
3) There is no discussion at all, whether EU policies heretofore have been successful and/or need to be changed. This pertains especially to the dominant economic policy during the financial/economic crisis from 2008 onward. EU and Eurozone policy decisions have led to excessive unemployment, stagnant overall EU and EZ performance, severe losses of welfare in many countries – and thus loss of confidence in the EU. While EU as a whole has reached its pre-crisis output only 9 years after the outbreak of the crisis, the US has today a GDP more than 10% higher than 2007. Other countries have also done much better. Juncker‘s paper does not mention policy changes at all, even though he could point to the fact that minute changes in the austerity direction during the last year have improved performance. However, the basic mantra that budget consolidation and government debt reduction are the main goals of EU economic policy persist. New institutional and power-sharing arrangements without significant change in policy directions (also beyond economic policy) will lead to further loss of confidence and will play into the hands of anti-EU populist forces.